Saturday, 7 February 2009

with arms outstretched - lex mcquilkin

Lex McQuilkin

Artist Lex McQuilkin is the brains behind the co-ordination of the Post Queer Project, an interactive, collaborative mail-art project designed to highlight the lives of queer individuals, and encourage the self-expression of queer lives; Lives and personal experiences that often go unacknowledged, and are so easily swept beneath the blanket of larger pictures and bigger issues.

Submissions are the only way that the Post Queer Project keeps going, and as such individuals are actively encouraged to submit postcards to creatively & artistically answer questions and start conversations to make their voices heard. Some of these questions have been:
-how do you use/define the word "queer?"
-how do you or don't you pass?
-what fires you up?
-how do you define the boundary between queer theory and praxis?
-what are your hopes and/or fears in relation to your queerness and/or sexuality?
-how do you navigate heterosexism/ hedonism/ racism/ idealism/ optimism/ pessimism/ sexism/ anarchism/ capitalism/ feminism/ monotheism/ classism?
-are you pro- or anti-assimilation? why?
-are you pro- or anti-pride(tm)? why?
-how did you come out as queer? or why haven't you?
-you say you're a gender so?
-is personal political?

I originally wrote this interview with Lex for issue 5 of the zine Reassess Your Weapons (2006) to promote and raise awareness of the PQP in order to hopefully encourage and inspire submissions from the UK queer community.

Hi Lex, how are you?

I'm doing really well; thank you.

Could you explain briefly what the PostQueer project is, why you started it and what your involvement and investment in it is?
I started PostQueer because I was/am interested in hearing individual stories on how people relate to their identity and how they might convey their experience as an anonymous offering to the public. For some time, I had been kicking around some loose ideas on ways to combine identity politics with some form of mail art. A few years ago, I was active in a number of mail art projects - generally, somebody would think of a focus and contributors would send their creations to this point person, or swap the pieces amongst themselves. I was really drawn to this interaction, of complete strangers communicating via creativity, though I often wished there was a more cohesive end-product. Somewhere along the line, I started visiting the Post Secret blog (now a book, too!), and it quickly inflated my already-existing love for the postcard.

Why was it important to you that queer voices and experiences were given a forum to be heard, expressed, acknowledged and recognised?
Well, really, everybody should have a forum to air out their stories and experiences, and generally people DO via different avenues, but free opportunities to do so are harder to come by for minority and/or oppressed groups. And, of course, just because you're screaming doesn't mean anybody is listening. Everyone is full of stories, but the chance to tell them is often tainted by internal questioning of whether it's worth telling, especially if one is so often confronted with criticism, disapproval, or misunderstanding.

You wrote to me that, ‘with all my heart, I do believe that the project could result in great things’. What are your specific hopes for the PostQueer project?
I think there are two sides to PostQueer; it is both a public art project and a means of expression. Being an artist, I am constantly on the prowl for visual stimulation that I can walk away from feeling inspired. This inspiration might hang on a gallery wall or it might be etched into the walls of a bathroom stall, and either way, I want to still be thinking about it days, weeks, or months later. I want the PostQueer project to do this to its audience. I'd love to see the collection grow bulkier by the day, travel around for all the public to see, and, of course, keep inspiring and recruiting people to create more. I want queers to sift through the PostQueer collection and see a broad spectrum of similarities and differences, just as much as I want non-queers to sift through the collection and have the same reactions.

I love that the project honours and encourages individuals’ creativities as self-expression and as a political tool. Where did the idea to make the PostQueer project such a creative and artistic project come from?
Without delving too deep into how art seems to be moving farther and farther from personal politics and cultural criticisms, I'll just say that there should be more of each. That said, I think it's a duty of the creative person to actively use their leanings as a political tool. And on the same token, for people who claim to not have a creative bone in their body, the act of creating something requires one to process information in a different manner than they might otherwise, whether it be in coming up with imagery that sums up what they want to say, or in turning complexities into something concise. People have mentioned that their supposed lack of creativity is holding them back from contributing to PostQueer, which makes me think I need to stress that fact that it needn't be a grandiose artistic endeavor.
Any form of expression is valid, as long as it can be put on the front of a postcard. Three words scrawled onto notebook paper in barely-legible pencil might be all it takes!

In their book, Grassroots, Jennifer Baumgardner & Amy Richards wrote that, ‘art is an avenue to solutions and understandings that we wouldn’t have gotten to any other way.’ Do you agree, with regards to the PostQueer project with these thoughts on the power and ability of art?
Yes, certainly! Although, as I mentioned, I wish more artists were producing work that might foster these avenues. If every piece of "art," in the formal sense, contained the spirited motivation and execution of the contributions to PostQueer, the art world would be an entirely different landscape. Most people look at art and expect it to be 'about something.' If a viewer is actively attempting to be aware of their environment, they're receptive to the notion that every piece of art has an underlying story. This story might be a blatant declaration or the most subtle of expressions, and the beautiful part about it is that ultimately it's up to the viewer to process this information.
PostQueer definitely has the potential to act as an avenue to solutions and understandings, particularly because it's a project of innumerable voices, each with its own distinctions. It could be beneficial in terms of validating just one person that might not have a community or as grand as forcing an audience of straight people to recognize and acknowledge ideas and experiences that they might not otherwise hear/see.

The project actively encourages people to MAKE SOMETHING. The emphasis is placed on making, doing something, anything to offer a personal account of their queer identity; as opposed to an emphasis on expertise or artistic/creative experience. It seems to be more about having an idea and turning it into something public: making queer lives public.
In removing limitations and encouraging involvement do you see the project as a useful mode of engaging audiences and creators to participate in the project intimately – that is, do you see it as a positive act in closing the gaps between people knowing about the politics, and them actually acting on their knowledges and experiences?

Politics are useless without personal motivations. We can talk about queer theory, struggles, progress and setbacks to our heart's content, but there has to be a humanistic element for anybody to truly identify with it. Unfortunately, it seems as though a lot of people doubt whether their personal experiences are a worthwhile contribution to the sphere of theory and politics, but in fact, it is the collective mass of personal experience that gives weight to any large movement or expression.
I certainly feel that the freeform nature of PostQueer allows contributors to present and audiences to digest the information on an intimate level. The anonymity of sending in a postcard provides the freedom to express ones ideas without regard to how it might be received, and in turn, the audience is offered an unrivaled level of honesty. If I were asking people to stand up on a stage for a reading or requesting that they present their work in person, there would undoubtedly be some self-censorship or preservation.

By placing as few parameters as possible on the project; defining involvement with the descriptor of ‘make SOMETHING’, (a term which is likely to be interpreted in a vast array of different ways), do you think that the project by its very nature reflects acknowledges and recognises the fluidity of ‘queer’ in that the project is to be what we make it and will be self-determined and self-defined?
Of course, I hope it does! To place more limitations on either the project or the exact definition of queer would render my desires for fruitful expression completely null and void. In my mind, everybody recognises the self-definition that comes with the 'queer' label, but in reality people perceive it in different ways. For some, 'queer' is still a derogatory term, while others wouldn't identify as anything else. The name game is certainly a tough one to play!
I'll accept some fault in my assuming that everyone would embrace the term 'queer' and be able to offer a relative commentary. I come from the school of thought that dictates that one adopts 'queer' on their own accord, and it might not have anything at all to do with homo- or bisexuality. Granted, 99.9% of people associate 'queer' with homosexuals, but it isn't completely unheard of for heterosexuals to identify as queer. For PostQueer, the freedom of this fluidity encourages people to associate with the project in whichever manner they're comfortable, both in generating and expressing their ideas.
Really, the ambiguity of 'queer' and the only direction being to 'make something' leaves the playing field wide open to participants of nearly every persuasion, but I think that by its very nature, PostQueer attracts a certain small demographic. I am, however, perpetually in awe of the diversity, approach, and presentation of the contributions.

Something that made me really connect with the project was the emphasis that ‘this is your project too’. It appears that you are deeply invested in the potential and possibilities of collaborative and collective action making queer voices be heard. Thus, you also inspire others’ action, involvement and agency. It is clear that you think ACTION and active participation is essential.
I interviewed social sculptor Shelley Sacks last year and in the interview she spoke about participatory, collaborative art practices making people internally active and imaginatively active.
By making it clear that the PostQueer project is a collective, collaborative project, (and thus, in Sacks’ words, a imaginatively active project), what benefits do you think the internal actions of participants hold for the success of your project – in terms of it being and artistic AND political success?

Any degree of success, be it artistic or political, is entirely dependent on the actions of PostQueer's participants. It is by all means a collaborative project, as its strength as a body of work hinges on whether we receive all the small cogs that make the wheels turn; however, I think it is made unique in that individual contributions come from such a private place. While the project isn't asking people to necessarily pour out all their heart and soul onto a postcard, it's often still a bit of a mental shift to turn thoughts and experiences into a tangible object, though I think there is some solace in knowing that other contributors are doing the same. I hope that participants recognize that while the project belongs to everyone, it owes just as much of its existence on the individuals.

Shelley Sacks also blew my mind by talking to me about the RESPONSE-ABILITY of an art form which involves creative and collective participation (between the creators involved, as well as between the creators and the audiences).
Shelley wrote that such art is ‘a means of mobilizing us internally, creating spaces for new vision and giving us a sense of our ability (and response-ability) to shape things.’
What are your thoughts on these comments and ideas in relation to the aims, processes and envisaged outcomes of the PostQueer project?

I touched on this earlier, so I have no disagreements with Sacks' claims.
As an artist, I'm fascinated by the way an audience receives and reacts to bodies of work, for unless I anticipate that something I've created will only ever be seen by my own eyes, there is always an element in the creation of a piece in which I'm directly or subconsciously trying to communicate with my audience. As it relates to the PostQueer Project, I suspect that each contributor is also tailoring their work so that it may create a dialogue or interaction between their thoughts/process and the viewer. We can assume that plenty of other queers will see the contributions and perhaps be able to relate, but I also anticipate that queer allies and total strangers might be touched by the messages. This underlying force of effective/affective communication is what gives credibility to an otherwise random collection of postcards.

I am a firm believer in the power and potential of political activism within, and as, cultural production.
I recently read in a perzine somebody claiming that: ‘I love my pen because I cannot move my legs [into direct action and physical political action and activism].’
Do you think that the PostQueer project is positively promoting the concept of widening out the parameters of political activism to include, acknowledge and accept modes and methods of cultural action and activism as a valid, powerful form of activism; activism such as the action of individuals’ pens and sketch pads and cameras?
It has been traditionally and unhelpfully viewed that cultural activism is passive and unconstructive in comparison to more direct action (for whatever ‘direct’ means). What (if any) unique powers do you personally think our cultural production as a form of cultural activism holds within political activism – why, for example, did you decide on the tool of mailart and post to construct the project around?

I am staunchly against the prevailing notion that successful activism can come only at the hand of direct action, marches, etc. While I'll not refute that 'direct' action has its successes, whether the achievement is a monumental change or an act of awareness-raising, I'll hold fast to the idea that, yes, the proverbial pen is a mighty, underestimated tool.
We forget that activism and consciousness raising also comes in the form of zines with a print run of 50, films shown to a room of 20 people, music distributed from small merch tables after basement shows, blogs followed by one dozen or one hundred readers, or artwork wheatpasted onto subway walls. These things are all a factor in developing ideas, creating discussions, and furthering action in its varied forms; they mustn't ever be discredited as nonviable contributions to the sphere of political and cultural activism.
One of the most important parts of 'activism' is encouraging people to actively think about the issues one is so dedicated to. For instance, throughout last winter, I would regularly see a small group (never more than three people) standing at a major intersection near my house. They were there every day, for the morning commute, holding up signs protesting the US involvement in Iraq, usually including an ever-changing body count. While they were not blocking traffic or knocking down the White House walls, they were seen by innumerable drivers and pedestrians every day, and I'm sure a good number spent at least a few minutes thinking/talking about their presence. We could argue to what degree it may have been direct or indirect, but they certainly had some impact on passersby.
Mailart seemed to be a good medium because it's accessible to everyone. Participation requires only as much as a stamp and the amount of time people are willing to put into it. I like the idea of so many people working together to form a singular project, and that postal projects and exchanges have such a rich history, particularly in the realm of social causes. Too, because the postcard is public (as opposed to a sealed letter), there's a strong chance that it is seen and read by unsuspecting postal workers, so the artist-audience interaction occurs to some extent before the postcard even makes it to the PostQueer mailbox.

What has the feedback from the project been like so far, and what response have you had; have you had much post?
The feedback has been wonderful! I get a lot of emails from people that are excited to see this kind of project, and more requests for flyers than I can keep up with. Everybody has been incredibly supportive. Unfortunately, the postcards arent arriving in the droves that I had hoped for. It's definitely picking up, as the word spreads.

How do you imagine the progression and future of the project after the first installment and initial exhibition of postcards in June?
I hope that when the postcards are exhibited, more people will become aware of PostQueer and will be eager to contribute. There are countless queers and countless stories, certainly enough to keep the project growing for some time. My short term plans are gaining support for the project, collecting enough to show, and putting them into a zine format so the collection can reach a wider audience. In the future, I'd love to keep doing the same things, as well as arrange some sort of traveling exhibition. There's so much potential.


See: and to find out more & to spread the word about this project even further.

Most importantly though, all of our experiences are worth acknowledgement, so get involved and make something – create a postcard that offers a personal account of your identity.

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